One of the things that surprises foreigners most about Moscow is that any car on the road is a potential taxi. Because traditional cabs are scarce, expensive and never on time, there is nothing unusual about getting into the first car that stops for you. During my eight years in Moscow I rode in everything from low-slung BMWs driven by cash-poor businessmen to clunky UAZ military vans steered by army conscripts.
I had one of my most memorable rides a few years back, when an off-duty government car pulled over to take me downtown. The curmudgeonly driver switched on the flashing blue light attached to the roof and raced straight into a busy intersection, releasing blasts from the siren and obscenities via the PA system. The other drivers begrudgingly let us pass.
Today it’s possible we would have been boxed in by angry drivers, captured on half a dozen iPhone cameras and shamed on the internet. Automobilists have emerged as one of the Russia’s most powerful political interest groups: property owners by definition, they value mobility and demand common rules that apply to all. The flashing blue lights on government cars have become the hated symbol of a feudalistic system based on patronage and privilege.
The Society of Blue Buckets appeared a couple of years ago, calling for protests in which participants attached upside-down blue plastic buckets to their cars to ridicule the blue lights of self-important officials. Traffic cops were stumped; Moscow motorists loved it. When the largest anti-government demonstrations in 20 years broke out last December, the Blue Buckets became one of the engines behind the protest movement, sharing their experience in grassroots activism and organizing a mechanized procession around the Garden Ring road. Before leaving Moscow, I caught up with Pyotr Shkumatov, 33, a leading Blue Buckets activist and one of the bright new faces of Russian civil society. I met the unpretentious, bearded molecular biologist in the Vanilla Sky Café in northern Moscow.
On Putin’s victory and dwindling protests
Although Vladimir Putin won almost 64 percent nationwide in the March 4 presidential election, he failed to garner even half of the vote in Moscow, the hotbed of Russia’ protest movement.
Shkumatov made a distinction. “The active part of the capital doesn’t support him,” he said. But Putin still has the backing of “a passive majority.”
The reason Muscovites took to the streets in December was because they felt cheated at the parliamentary elections. Officially, United Russia won almost 47 percent of the vote in the capital, but the situation on the ground looked completely different. At the Moscow polling station where Shkumatov was an election observer, for example, the ruling party barely scraped together 25 percent.
“People judge on charisma. That’s why the only person who can replace Putin is another Putin.”
“At the Duma elections, people realized they were being duped,” said Shkumatov. “But there was no duping going on with Putin. Even allowing for lots of fraud, Putin really won.” The indisputability of his victory is the reason the protest mood has died down, Shkumatov said.
Shkumatov criticized the average Russian for “voting with the heart.” When I ventured that voters in western democracies are hardly any different, he remained skeptical. “A very large portion of the population still judges on charisma,” Shkumatov said gloomily. “That’s why the only person who can replace Putin is another Putin.”
On the future of the protest movement
Shkumatov disagrees with opposition leaders, such as left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov, who have been trying to radicalize the movement even as numbers at protests wane. At the first rally following Putin’s election, Udaltsov called on participants to remain at the fountain in the middle of Pushkin Square, provoking a police crackdown with more than 200 arrests.
“Normal people aren’t ready to take the fountain. They’ve dropped out of the normal societal process,” Shkumatov said. “The fact that Putin has no alternative is very dangerous.”
The paradox of Russian politics is that the more power Putin accumulated, the more he became convinced of his own indispensability and of the lack of any alternatives, Shkumatov said. It will take time to build new political structures; after all, even an informal group like the Blue Buckets needed two years to start running smoothly.
Activists holding poorly attended protests are like day traders betting against the market trend.
If you compare the protest movement to a company’s performance on the stock market, it’s falling now, Shkumatov said. In that sense, those opposition activists holding poorly attended protests are like day traders futilely betting against the dominant market trend, he said.
“I’ve taken the long view,” Shkumatov said. The end of the protest movement’s fall will depend on the government’s behavior – and when there’s finally an upturn, a new line-up of opposition leaders will come forward, he said.
On the rise of a new generation
Shkumatov said the opposition leaders who took to the stage at the winter rallies are all on their way out whether they know it or not: former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, 52; liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, 45; Putin’s first prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, 54; and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, 48.
“This isn’t about the middle class. It’s generational,” Shkumatov insisted.
“This isn’t about the middle class. It’s generational.”
The young people who grew up without any memory of the Soviet Union and communism have a “radically different consciousness” compared to their parents and grandparents, he said. At the same time, internet use is rising and TV viewership is falling, meaning more people are getting news from sources other than state television, Shkumatov said. By the next presidential election in 2018, he said, such “new people” will make up as much as 45 percent of the voting population.
“Six years are tomorrow,” Shkumatov said.
On Russia’s changing political landscape
One of the results of the protests was lame-duck President Dmitry Medvedev’s hurried initiative to loosen the draconian law that in recent years made the registration of independent political parties next to impossible. The reform is likely to cause a fragmentation of the opposition into a plethora of feuding micro-parties. Shkumatov said he hoped one strong opposition party would eventually emerge.
One quarter of the electorate will always support a party of bureaucrats like United Russia, Shkumatov said. Another quarter will back a liberal, pro-business party – the segment of the population that currently has no political representation and formed the backbone of the winter protests. (Shkumatov dismissed billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s plans to fill that niche as “completely artificial.” Prokhorov ran a doomed presidential campaign against Putin, coming in second in Moscow and third nationwide.)
The real question is who will represent the remaining 50 percent of the country, Shkumatov said. If the Communist Party, run by political dinosaur Gennady Zyuganov, gets a radical new leadership, it could become a fringe party along with the nationalists and cede the political center to United Russia, he said. But if the Communists can reform into a modern left-wing party, they could conceivably turn into a mainstream, centrist force, said Shkumatov.
On civil society and political ambition
“Civil society has been born. There’s movement, but it’s only the beginning,” Shkumatov said. “Everyone overestimated the strength and power of the winter movement.”
I wanted to know where Shkumatov saw the border between civil society and political action – and whether he could imagine building a career as a politician based on his experience in the Blue Buckets.
“I don’t want to get into this shithole. I won’t get into politics until it clears itself of odious figures.”
“If politics had a rational basis, then there wouldn’t be a boundary between civil society and politics,” he said. “Politics has turned into dirty money laundering. I try not to go there.”
Shkumatov spoke equally disparagingly of Kremlin puppet-masters as he did of eternal oppositionists such as Nemtsov and Kasparov.
“I don’t want to get into this shithole,” he said. “I won’t get involved until the political landscape starts clearing itself of odious figures.”